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Ugandan Peasants Risk Losing Land to International Companies

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Douglas Mpuga

A UK-based timber company last week suspended operations in Uganda for the year in the wake of what it called bad publicity.  The New Forest Company (NFC) says 500 tree plantation workers in Uganda will lose their jobs as a result.

The development group Oxfam International accused the company of illegally evicting some 20,000 Ugandan peasants from arable land to plant trees.

“I am not aware of their activities, who they employed or what the terms of their license were,” said Flavia Nabugere Munaabi, Uganda’s environment minister.

She said Uganda Forest Authority (NFA), the agency that issues licenses, is an independent body which “[has] not yet reported to us what happened.”

Munaabi explained that usually a license is given [for land in] a forest reserve where there may be encroachers. “So it is likely,” she said, “the people who were evicted were encroachers,” she added.

Oxfam International had raised concern about the company’s eviction of more than 20,000 people from their land to make way for the forest plantation without compensation and without adequate consultation.

The minister said although she didn’t have all the details about the British timber company, she believed the people had a right to participate in any development [activities] in the forest.

“The issue of corruption is real and in some instances there may be lack of transparency,” she said in reference to allegations that large tracts of land have been reportedly sold, leased or licensed mostly to international investors in secretive deals.

“We are losing forest cover very rapidly,” she said, “however, when it comes to guidance on re-afforestation, the tendency is to allocate land to big investors at the exclusion of the indigenous people.”

That is a problem, she said, “in that there is resentment that at times leads to vandalization of the forest.”

A report by Oxfam identified 227 million hectares(561 million acres) of land - an area the size of north-west Europe – as having been reportedly sold, leased or licensed, largely in Africa and mostly to international investors in thousands of secretive deals since 2001.

Analyst believe many of the world’s poorest people are being left worse off by the unprecedented pace of land deals and the frenetic competition for land.

Munaabi said communities need to be involved in tree planting and the value of trees rather than have foreign investors or big companies take over the land needed by local people.

She denied accusations that international organizations, such as the World Bank, are pressurizing poor countries to sell land to international investors to help people get out of poverty.  

“I don’t think its pressure from international organizations.  It’s pressure from our own financial needs,” she said, noting that big companies have money, “but the pressure is more from our own vulnerability than from elsewhere.”

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